Dead Space is a game so unsettling it took me years to finish it. Soon after its original 2008 release, I abandoned my first attempt. I’d played and enjoyed horror games before, but something felt different about what Dead Space had to offer. I couldn’t take it. Years later I would end up completing the game, but I’ve never forgotten the initial anxiety that it stirred up in me. Setting aside the missteps the series would end up taking in its second and third entries, what the original Dead Space accomplishes is simple in its frightening elegance: You’re trapped on a ghost ship in the midst of its own industrial/organic nightmare and you have to escape.
Much of the anxiety that I find simultaneously attractive and repulsive in Dead Space is tied to the worn-down, blue-collar approach of its story and setting aboard the massive Ishimura mining vessel. As a kid growing up around the deep, dark waters of Puget Sound, WA, I would watch big tankers roll into Commencement Bay and anchor in the shadow of the giant copper smelting tower that used to overlook the area there. It was a filthy place and I’d wonder what part those mysterious rusty ships had to play in that toxic wasteland. Where in all the world had they been and what had they brought back with them?
This was the image Dead Space had drawn from my memory and that had bothered me so much. And it’s one that still fascinates me, even as the game’s jumps scares and lighting tricks lose their intended effect on repeated playthroughs.
This edition of ‘If you like’ deals with big ships and the mysterious, sometimes evil cargo they carry. I’ve picked out some novels, comics, and films that deal with what I think is Dead Space’s central theme—machines that bring us into contact with new fears as well as show us the ones that travel with us all the time.
Rendezvous with Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke’s 1973 novel anticipates and works with many themes that have become a staple of late-20th century science fiction. The development of planet earth in response to catastrophe, the limits of technology, and the difficulties of inter-species communication. But just like Dead Space, Rama also functions as a hard-sci-fi adventure story that puts a host of problems at the feet of some pilots and engineers and asks them to find a solution.
In the novel, a massive celestial object appears in earth’s solar system. First thought to be an asteroid, it’s actually an interstellar spacecraft. But the destination of the ship is unknown. The drama of the story plays out as the crew of the only ship that’s near enough to make contact—a solar survey vessel—begins to explore the alien craft. The novel is a great example of Clarke’s tightly controlled characterization and attention to scientific detail and plausibility. While Rama isn’t a novel of space horror per se, its sense of urgency, claustrophobia and mystery should appeal to fans of Dead Space.
The Thing, directed by John Carpenter
Beyond the obvious references to the 1982 John Carpenter classic in terms of Dead Space’s body horror and gore, the psychological dimension of this film also has a lot to offer. We’re confronted fairly early in the film with the horrific implications of an alien being bent on murderous replication. But it’s the response of the men to the psychological challenges brought on by their isolation in Antarctica that lends the film its true narrative pulse: Who can they trust? How do they escape this scenario?
Carpenter gathers a superb group of character actors to play out this test of wills, led by Kurt Russell who turns in a sardonic performance as a chess-playing helicopter pilot bent on survival. It’s also worth checking out the original novella upon which the film is based—John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There?
For a slightly less-serious take from Carpenter on isolation and the horrors of space, you might also be interested in his 1974 movie Dark Star. The movie follows a stressed-out group of men who work as a kind of wrecking crew in deep space, launching bombs to destroy dangerous or problematic planets and moons. Sometimes billed as a comedy, the low-budget Dark Star helped kickstart the career of Alien writer Dan O’Bannon who acts in the picture.
Southern Cross, story by Becky Cloonan, art by Andy Belanger
A new comic from Image that’s only on its third issue, Southern Cross hits all the right notes for dark and ambitious ship-based sci-fi. The narrative so far follows the journey of Alex Braith, a woman traveling from earth to the Titan moon in order to collect the body of her dead sister. A solitary and—perhaps—troubled woman, Braith has to find a way to make it through the voyage to Titan on the giant Southern Cross spaceship, an industrial tanker and personnel carrier that appears to have a few horrors of its own to reveal.
Along the way Braith encounters a variety of strange types all looking to dig some kind of meaning out of a solar system structured around the faceless corporations that keep the fuel flowing. The writing is pithy and authentic, an approach that gels nicely with Belanger’s Moebius-influenced art style. Belanger’s art not only captures the sharp edges of Braith’s emotional landscape, but also works brilliantly at depicting the technological complexity and scale of the comic’s grimy industrial universe.
Event Horizon, directed by Paul Anderson
The movie follows a rescue crew on a mission to investigate the sudden reappearance of a ship that had been missing for seven years. That ship, the Event Horizon, was tasked with attempting to make mankind’s first interstellar voyage through the use of a new propulsion system that exploits gravity. Now that the Event Horizon’s returned, and in a decaying orbit around Neptune, the rescue crew and the ship’s designer head out to try and find out what’s become of its mission.
It’s no secret that horror films like Event Horizon lose a bit of their punch on repeated viewings. But I’ll never forget the sheer bizarreness of my first encounter with this movie in the late-1990s. Although it was a critical and box office flop, it was the kind of film you’d pick out and watch with friends just to see how they would respond—kind of like The Shining in this way.
The film’s look and story owe a lot to earlier movies such as Solaris and Alien, and were an obvious influence on the aesthetics of Dead Space. And from its costuming to its acting and practical special effects, the nearly-20-year-old film holds up remarkably well. If you like Dead Space and haven’t seen Event Horizon yet, it’s a must-see.